The Bottom Shelf: Remo, Almost Human, Branded To Kill and more

Nick wades into another stack of DVD releases, including 80s action epic Remo: Unarmed And Dangerous, and lots more besides...

“Whatever happened to Fred Ward?” is a line surely on the tip of most people’s tongues. Apparently, the star of Tremors and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult has mostly been doing TV work over the last few years, though you’ll almost certainly remember him as the charismatic star of 1985’s Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. No? Well, shame on you, because Remo, making a welcome Blu-Ray debut, leads this month’s action-packed, erm, action special.

If you weren’t one of the lucky few that grew up with the preposterous movie otherwise known as Remo: Unarmed And Dangerous punctuating their childhood, we’ll fill you in. Riding on the success of the Rambo films (essentially, the only tenuous link being the vaguely similar name), Bond director Guy Hamilton’s creaky adaptation of the Destroyer series of pulp novels about a New York cop turned assassin has been mostly forgotten in the mists of time.

We open with a putty-nosed, porn-‘stached Ward chomping on a doughnut, only to be disturbed by a mugging taking place. Holding a perp to the wall with the immortal phrase “suck wall”, the scene is set for a wonderfully enjoyable slice of stoopid cheese. Things take a turn for the worse and our hero is left for dead, only to be resurrected with a new face by a shady group led by Wilford Brimley. Yes, that Wilford Brimley, ordering hits on powerful bad guys.

Craig Safan’s ludicrous earworm main theme is a great mash-up of 80s synth-pop and bombastic orchestral Americanism that remains burrowing in this writer’s head more than a month after re-viewing. Ridiculous set-pieces on the Statue of Liberty and a ferris wheel are nothing compared to the silliness of lines such as “The eleventh commandment: though shalt not get away with it”, or the fact Brimley not once leaves his chair in the whole film. 

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Throw in the nugget that Remo’s South Korean mentor Chiun is played by white American Joel Grey employing extensive (not to mention racist) Asian face makeup and then consider that this effect was – incredibly – actually nominated for an Oscar and you have the makings of something special. Fans of The Room, Sharknado! and Batman & Robin rejoice for the return of Remo.

It turns out there were other films released this month besides Remo. Though it would arguably be better to watch that film another seven times instead, in the interests of fairness we really should move on, sadly.

Similar to Remo in every way except for tone, plot, acting, soundtrack, direction and editing, also out this month is late Glee star Corey Monteith’s final movie, the much-maligned cop thriller McCanick, out on DVD. With a decent turn from David Morse as the titular walking ball of gruffness and a quality score from modern classical composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, there is more than just standard cop cliché in Josh C Waller’s film.

Unfolding over the course of one day, Monteith plays a young rent boy whom the  veteran cop McCanick knows from his past and is trying to track down in the present. With some twists and turns on the way, the two come into collision course as the truth will be revealed.

A more thoughtful film than its marketing would have you believe (character actor Morse is no Vinnie Jones or Danny Trejo), Daniel Noah’s script picks at the idea of traditional masculinity (the unsubtle clue is in the title and the film’s climactic garage scene) in an ambitious, albeit clunky way, making for something a little more interesting than most cop pics.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed some skillful dropping of the names of messrs Jones and Trejo in the previous paragraph. Segueing ninja-subtly, we now move into the realm of stars that appear in approximately a thousand low-rent movies per year to presumably pay the rent.

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First up, Machete, Muppets Most Wanted and almost certainly future Expendables star Danny Trejo plays lead-badass Angel in the brutal Darkness Descends. Set in a bleak-as-hell alternative New York where the poverty-stricken underclass struggle for survival in the city’s abandoned subway tunnels, this recession-era production offers blunt allegory alongside brutal gang violence. 

Kinga Philipps plays a documentary-maker from above ground trying to film this inconvenient truth, who runs into trouble with Trejo’s gruffer-than-Morse kingpin. An undercover cop gone native (Frank Krueger) steps up to help as various post-apocalyptic (albeit this time financial rather than nuclear/ape/Ebola) cardboard characters rear their heads and by the end, it’s all a little, well, boring. Opportunities for social commentary are largely avoided in favour of grim stereotypes and dull action and we’re left wishing for a very literal darkness to fall.

Mildly better though still a bit “this’ll be with the £3 DVDs in Tesco in a few weeks”, Dolph Lundgren vehicle A Certain Justice trundles along with a small role for everyone’s favourite former Wimbledon FC psychopath, Vinnie Jones. The old staple of family wipe-out crops up once again as real-life mixed martial-artist Cung Le’s ex-soldier seeks vengeance on Lundgren’s bewigged criminal bigwig.

Le is a decent enough action lead (or at least better than the lumbering Lundgren and barely-there Jones) though there’s not really anything here you haven’t seen before, done decades ago with Steven Seagal, on VHS.

We finish off the action “bit” (fear not, bloodthirsty types: a few token horror entries to follow!) with (finally) something genuinely great, Seijun Suzuki’s effortlessly classy 1967 Japanese screwball yakuza classic, Branded To Kill, given a lovely Blu-Ray makeover this month. Said to have influenced the likes of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, this distinctive tale of a hitman doing his best to stay alive when a job goes wrong is a memorable mix of surrealist comedy, expressionistic romance and one of the most creative shoot-outs on film. 

Joe Shishido plays the third-ranked killer in a criminal syndicate who loses his cool edge over rivals when he falls for the classic femme fatale (Annu Mari, who also happens to be his latest client). Frantic performances cast opposite icy-faced calm in the form of the gang’s number one killer (Koji Nanbara) work brilliantly with Suzuki’s eccentric direction eking every bit of tension out of an otherwise meditative plot.

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With echoes of film noir balanced with French new wave romanticism and some hilariously surreal exchanges between our assassin leads as they battle in a seemingly abandoned modern, ruined world, Branded To Kill remains a boldly idiosyncratic take on the tropes of this genre.

As promised (told you not to worry), we move on to the more bloodied section that is the dual-pronged onslaught of evil possession in Matt Thompson’s The Cabin and Joe Begos’ Almost Human.

Apparently, the eyes are not only the window to the soul but, going on the evidence in both of these contacts-heavy DVD releases, are also a consistently cheap and effective route to crafting an inhuman bad’un on film.

Thompson’s “messed-up redneck with dodgy eyes” (definitely not a reference to the Ernest ‘comedy’ series) malarkey takes place in a cabin in the woods (yawn), with something or other to do with Native American curses (zzz) and demonic possession (further sleep-related sound). Scary eyes aside, you already know the deal with this one.

Begos’ alien-fest is nearly as unoriginal, though there’s something endearing about Almost Human’s short, sharp blast of neck-stabbings, head-shootings and car-crunchings. Wearing the obvious John Carpenter influence on his celluloid sleeve, the director’s apparent love of The Thing and Halloween shines through. Being a massive fan of both, you could point out some bias here, and you’d be right. Check out the top 80-style poster on IMDB for similar geek-worship. 

Anyway. Taking the Body Snatchers premise of alien pods really inconsiderately taking over the population of a small US town, the USP of Begos’ movie is the sheer ferocity of attacks that take place, filmed in a near-realist manner (again, it’s the eyes that change, conveniently). Screw anything like a knowing script, proper characterization or suspense: who needs that when you have a hulking beardo coming for you?

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Complete with its own “you gotta be fucking kidding me” animatronic moment, Almost Human is an effective exercise in film nostalgia done right when it could have gone so wrong.

We end this month with the DVD release of Scintilla, the British sci-fi horror that has bizarrely inspired a side-project featuring vintage metal band Saxon’s Biff Byford. Sadly, we’re not treated to any Wheels Of Steel-alikes in the film’s score, though what we do get is a nicely downbeat spin on the likes of Species as a group of mercenaries track down a genetic experiment in a former Soviet state.

Familiar face and Sean Bean’s co-star in Black Death, John Lynch exudes stoicism as our head gun-for-hire facing down an unlikely combatant, whilst Billy O’Brien’s restrained direction and similarly deft score from Adrian Johnston keep the thrills on the right side of a potentially campy plot. Chiming neatly with the current crisis in Ukraine (though this is not to say that that conflict directly involves marauding super-powered mutants), Scintilla not only fully justifies a Saxon spin-off album but is an effective low-budget monster romp to boot.

You can read Nick’s previous edition of The Bottom Shelf here.

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